September 1996 – Masoud’s troops have to flee, we stay Kemal has organised well. Not only did he shop for us, he also found out where we could best do some interviews. In the afternoon we drive a few kilometres from the city centre towards the southwest. Already from a distance we see “Television Hill”,
September 1996 – Masoud’s troops have to flee, we stay
Kemal has organised well. Not only did he shop for us, he also found out where we could best do some interviews. In the afternoon we drive a few kilometres from the city centre towards the southwest. Already from a distance we see “Television Hill”, an inner-city mountain on which a number of larger antennas are placed. “None of that works anymore,” Kemal knows. “The transmitters are all dead, there’s no TV at all, radio only for one or two hours a day.” A lot of people live at Television Hill, who are said to be very friendly and also we would have a wide view over the city from there with our camera. But we should hurry! The Taliban…
Before we go up the hill, I want to buy a car battery and a charger. My satellite phone also works with 12 volts, so I can use it at night when the embassy generator is not running. During the day, while the generator is working, the battery should be charged.
Over muddy dirt roads we drive up TV Hill for a while. To the right and to the left, mud houses standing crouched down to the mountain. The roofs are often covered with grass, here and there a goat feeds on one of the houses. There are small grocery stores every few hundred meters and now, in the afternoon, several people are in the streets. Even up here the war is visible again and again. Grenade impacts can be seen, some of the mud buildings have been destroyed, a water tank has been literally shredded. At the end of a bend there is what is left of a Soviet tank. The letters UXO are painted in white on the dark green camouflage. “UXO”, that stands for “Unexploded Ordonance”, something explosive, something dangerous on or in the wreck. Directly behind it Kemal parks his car so that we can get out, but warns us not to get too close to the tank. Orhan sets up the camera. View over Kabul to the airport. The legs of the tripod sink into the mud.
For years several organisations in Afghanistan have been searching for mines and other explosives and blasting or defusing them. The work of mine searchers is difficult and life-threatening, especially as the war continues around them. More than 10 million mines are said to have been laid in Afghanistan so far. And they are above all an instrument of terror, because more than 80 percent of the mine victims worldwide are civilians.
Three men are approaching us. Deep wrinkles in their faces. Grey turbans, the ends of the cloth hanging over their shoulders. One sounds as if he can hardly breathe. The rattle of the bronchi seems to be louder than the truck beside us, panting slowly uphill. “Salam Aleikum”, booms the tall one with the black horn-rimmed glasses. It would be a wonderful, peaceful day, translates Kemal, our driver. If they could help us somehow. After a short nod of mine Kemal explains what we are doing in Kabul and I tell him to ask the men if I can do a short interview with them. Sure, no problem, is the answer of them. Orhan is already prepared, I have the microphone with the DW logo in my hand. “Gentlemen, you live up here, high above downtown Kabul. Is it safer here than down there?” They exchange short glances, then one of them answers. Kemal translates: “No, actually it doesn’t matter where you are in the city. There’s shooting everywhere, explosions in every area.” I would like to know how they would protect themselves and their families. There would be no protection, they answer, the only thing they can do is not to turn on the light in the evening and at night. Finally I want to know if they see a chance that this war will end soon. Yes, they say. As soon as the Taliban have taken the city, there will be peace.
In fact, Deutsche Welle television is my main client for this “Afghanistan mission”. Not only should I bring material for a few reports to Berlin, but I should also (via the satellite telephone) report live from Kabul several times a day.
I have already worked in a number of areas of war and crisis. But when this job was agreed a few weeks ago with Deutsche Welle, I was quite shocked. So far none of my clients has behaved so unprofessionally when it came to dangerous missions.
Obviously the editorial staff in Berlin never thought about how to communicate with a reporter who works in an area where there is no usable communication system. Afghanistan currently has neither a telephone nor a telex network. A modern mobile network is still in its infancy even in Germany. In Afghanistan, it’s out of the question. So communication is only possible via satellite telephone – and Deutsche Welle doesn’t have anything like that. Unbelievable. I’ll get myself one of these devices.
When I asked whether I could at least be given protective vests to protect us from gunfire and shrapnel, the editor in charge stood there with her mouth open – but that was all. So no protective vests.
The night in the bunker doesn’t give the impression that the battles are about to end. A few dozen times we hear rockets roaring up. These are the things that are internationally known as “Katjuscha”. In the Second World War they were called “Stalinorgel” by the Germans. They are simple, ballistic rocket propelled missiles that can only be directed very roughly at a target. However, since many of the Katjuschas can be fired in a short time one after the other, several blocks of houses are often destroyed within a few seconds. The Turkish Embassy gets no hit. Do the Taliban avoid hits to the building here, since Turkey is an Islamic country?
Late in the evening I have the first live talk with the studio of Deutsche Welle. During the news broadcast a photo of me is faded in, the presenter asks questions and I give the answers. Life from Afghanistan, explosions in the background and all that via satellite phone. This will probably become routine in the evening – as long as our antenna is not destroyed outside.
Another completely peaceful morning in Kabul. Cool but bright sunshine. In the evening I had asked Kemal to find out something about the mine sweepers. He seems to know Kabul very well. The “Mine Clearing Agency” has its office not far from the German embassy, which has been partly destroyed and closed for years. Hidden behind sandbags and under camouflage nets we find the boss. A Turk, as chance would have it. Shoulder pats all around, frown on my forehead. He is a former officer of the Turkish Army – and I don’t have really good experiences with these guys. He is cooperative and at least that is completely atypical for a Turkish soldier. Early the next morning we should be here again and then they would take us the whole day to a mine search operation. Not bad! This will be a good film.
A loud night with detonations and vibrating earth is over. Kemal, the taxi driver, who now only works for us, is already standing in front of the door at just before seven. No coffee, no tea, the generator is not running at this time. In the middle of an intersection, which we could pass without any problems yesterday, now lie the remains of a house. In the night a rocket or a grenade must have hit here. Women try to clear away the rubble, at the edge there is a child playing with the empty cartridge belt of a machine gun. Dense, black hair with a single dark red strand over the forehead.
The minesweepers are already waiting for us. Orhan with his camera is sitting in front of the truck, Ali and I, chauffeured by Kemal, are following. According to the position of the sun we drive south, through roads I have never seen before. Half an hour later we reach an almost undeveloped property. A small shed at the edge. In the middle, under the roof of corrugated iron, maybe 20 or 25 cages. On a surface of approximately 2 x 2 meters in each lattice construction a dog. Exclusively German shepherds. Great excitement among the dogs at our arrival. A concert of 20 barking muzzles and excitedly wagging tails. Each mine searcher has his own four-legged “buddy”. The man we would like to see today is Mirwais. His partner is the shepherd “Sonja”. She is stroked, fed and then stroked again. For me it really looks as if the two mine seekers, one with two legs and the other with four, have a good, trusting relationship with each other.
At the exit of the property another truck is ready. It is an IFA W50 built in the GDR. In the body of the vehicle there are six small lattice crates, each with a seat next to it. The dogs know their daily routine. Sonja jumps aboard the W50 and looks for “her” cage. Mirwais sits next to her. After two or three minutes there are six dogs with their “masters” in the vehicle and off we go. This time Orhan sits with the camera in front with us in the car. Through windscreen and side window he shoots the dog transporter through the destroyed Kabul. Over broken roads and through small craters left behind by explosions, we head south until we reach a wide arterial road. To the right and left of this road are the ubiquitous wrecks of military vehicles. Here we will search the hard shoulders today. To the left of the road stands a T-62 tank. A Soviet main battle tank from the 60s, as hundreds of them were deployed in Afghanistan. This one had obviously hit a mine. One of the tracks broke, so it was no longer possible to go on.
The dog truck is parked, a tarp is erected under which dog and man can recover from the burning sun in between, then it starts. All these search dogs were trained in Germany and came by airplane to Kabul. Without exception the animals listen to commands in German language. Mirwais drives his Sonja with his hand over his head and says quietly “Komm! Side by side they walk along the road until they reach their assigned search area. A short “Sitz” from Mirwais and Sonja sits next to him, looks at him from big eyes and waits for further orders. And then comes “Such!” With very small steps, paw in front of paw, the shepherd dog sniffs her way along the side of the road. Ten meters, 20 meters, after five minutes perhaps 100 meters and slowly further. The shepherd’s head moves at regular intervals from left to right and back.
These specially trained dogs, Mirwais explains with translation help from driver Kemal, can search for about an hour a day. After that they are exhausted, have to drink and eat. The next day they have a break, are in their cages in town and only the following day they will be on the stalk for explosives again for an hour.
About half an hour has passed. Sonja stops, sits down and barks sharp and loud. From behind Mirwais approaches his “buddy”. One of her front paws goes up briefly. The signal is completely clear for Mirwais. Right in front of Sonja lies something explosive. The spot is marked with a little flag, then the sniffer dog is led to a shady spot. “Platz” is the order and Sonja makes herself comfortable. The master now puts on his protective gear.. Chest armour, helmet with massive face protection and thick special gloves, which reach up to the elbow. With a metal scanner he searches around the marked area until the beep of the device has reached its full volume. Then Mirwais suddenly has a massive knife with a long blade in his hand. On his belly he rubs himself closer to where he found the device and carefully scrapes the earth to the side with his blade. It takes a minute, then an explosive grenade becomes visible, as it can probably be fired from tanks. Maybe 50 or 60 centimetres long and 10 centimetres in diameter.
Mirwais explains: “Yes, I could defuse the thing. This is possible – but very dangerous, because the things are unpredictable.” What then? Leave them where they are? Marked as UXO? “No, I have to blow them up.” Sonja and Mairwais run to the truck. The two-legged mine detector is back after a few minutes. In the hand a package with kneadable plastic explosive. Like children do with plasticine, Mirwais forms a long, thin roll and places it around the grenade pretty close to it. Finally he sticks a fuse into the plasticine and puts the fuse down to the road about three meters away.
Now we have to take cover, because there will be a huge bang in a moment. At a distance of almost 200 meters there is a group of rocks behind which we can seek shelter. Orhan sets the camera up on the tripod so that it stands as protected as possible, but can record the explosion as good as possible. We signal Mirwais that we are safe, he blows the warning horn. Three times in total and then he lights the fuse and runs behind the defective tank, which is a good 100 metres away on the other side of the road. It takes about a minute. The sound of the detonation is so loud that I am deaf for some time. The camera comes tilting towards on its tripod and Ali catches it before it crashes to the ground. Hopefully the recordings are usable!
From Mirwais I want to know how dangerous the job is for the dogs. “Not very,” is his answer. “The dog is too light to trigger an anti personal mine or a tank mine. And when special mines can be dangerous for the dogs, we don’t use the animals.”
What a day! What a task to clear Afghanistan of mines! In the evening in the bunker we watch our videos: they are great an very impressive. To fall asleep again fierce battles outside, but shortly after midnight I wake up, because suddenly it is completely quiet. No outgoing and no incoming artillery, no explosions. Early in the morning we see the Taliban flying flags through the streets. They have taken the city, Mahsoud’s fighters are dead or fled.
The next chapter of my Afghanistan Diary will be published on 9 July 2019. It’s title will be “September 1996 – An Evening with an Afghan female Student”. New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total.
Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia. He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots. To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at)australia-news.de (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)
My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic. In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973. Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister. I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country. Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants. Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved. Dieter Herrmann
Translation from German to English with the help of www.deepl.com